Can Russian Safe Zones Solve Syria?
If a potential negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict exists, something in the spirit of Russia’s plan for decentralization and ceasefires might be it.
If there was any doubt the Russians are now leading diplomatic efforts on Syria, the latest round of Astana talks made it abundantly clear. On May 4, Russia reached an agreement with Turkey and Iran to create safe zones — “de-escalation zones,” in the parlance — beginning at midnight the following day. Located in Idlib, northern Homs countryside, Eastern Ghouta, and in southern Syria, these zones will supposedly see ceasefires enforced by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, the signatory “guarantor states.” Opposition representatives refused the deal, and even if they had agreed, the plan would have little hope of success. Yet despite its all-but-inevitable failure, this agreement can serve as a framework for a future settlement.
Parties backing the Syrian opposition have long advocated the creation of safe zones to ease the humanitarian crisis created by the conflict, but Russia’s own warming to the policy marks a major shift. Overcoming its previous skepticism, Moscow has put forward its own version of safe zones that entails a crucial difference: de facto mutual recognition. That is, the opposition and the Assad regime must both accept that the other will remain a force in Syria for the foreseeable future. This is suboptimal for both sides, but it could pave the way for a decentralization in which Damascus loosens its grip on local communities across the country.
If a potential negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict exists, something in the spirit of Russia’s plan for decentralization and ceasefires might be it. Alternatives to this are untenable. The long-held Western, Gulf, and opposition approach — pressuring Assad to negotiate his own departure — is unrealistic. Assad is not going to step down willingly, and his backers have limited capacity to force him out of power. And should the opposition’s supporters continue to escalate, force Assad’s demise violently, and break the back of the regime, Syria will fragment. Disparate groups of all stripes will clash and compete over their fiefdoms, and the country may never be put back together again.
Decentralization is likely the most prudent way forward in Syria, and Russia’s plan can serve as the beginnings of a framework along those lines. But there are two major obstacles to the current agreement: First, the divide between the regime and the opposition is still too wide; and, second, the plan attempts to enforce the unenforceable.
A bridge too far
The wide gaps between the Assad regime and the opposition remain – made clear by the opposition representatives’ dramatic walkouts during the Astana talks, then by their refusal to sign the deal. Even before the meeting began, the opposition published ten demands, including measures that were unrealistic or wholly incompatible with the Russian plan. The most notable were that Assad step down; that the regime return substantial territory it had captured since the first round of Astana talks—including two towns that were ultimately transferred in a negotiated settlement; and that Iran and its allied militias cannot have any role in Syria.
It is undeniable that the Assad regime has committed heinous crimes and Iran has supported him and facilitated his brutality throughout the war. But it is unrealistic to believe that Assad will depart willingly, nor will Iran will abandon its interests in Syria. There is nothing in this deal, or any other, that has incentivized them to do so.
This is not to say the regime and its backers should make no concessions of their own. They certainly should allow humanitarian assistance to the remaining besieged areas and refrain from using thermobaric weapons, barrel bombs, and other brutal tactics. But most important, Assad needs to accept that he will not be able to recapture the entire country. It is likely regime forces can and will reclaim Eastern Ghouta at some point (despite its inclusion as a safe zone in the current Russian plan), but Idlib and Dara’a will be much harder for the regime to take by force. The harder it tries, the more bloodshed Syria will see.
Enforcing the unenforceable
Even if the gaps between the regime and the opposition could be bridged, logistical challenges with Russia’s plan remain. Genuine safe zones and definitive ceasefires — as opposed to the frequently violated quasi-ceasefires produced by past talks — are difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. The Russian-led agreement reportedly stipulates that “guarantor states” would deploy their own troops or “consensus” armed groups to monitor ceasefires and drive out ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, but it is unclear the guarantors will be able to control what is happening on the ground.
First and foremost, clarity is needed on which specific groups need to be removed from the safe zones to comply with the agreement and how they will be made to leave. Reports on the plan do not specify whether “Jabhat al-Nusra” refers to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the moniker Nusra took when it rebranded itself in 2016, or perhaps Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, a larger coalition of Salafist groups led by Nusra. Especially in Idlib, opposition groups across the ideological spectrum are intertwined with Nusra and other hardline Salafist groups. While there have been inter-opposition clashes, the opposition groups have, by in large, refrained from total war with one another for fear of weakening themselves and leaving themselves vulnerable to Assad’s offensives. Attempts by Turkish-backed opposition groups to force Nusra or HTS out of a potential safe zone would likely lead to a war within the opposition, which would be a major boon for Assad. If Turkish troops are present, this could draw Turkey even further into the conflict, possibly clashing with its own allies in the opposition.
Second, even if Turkey and the opposition do eject Nusra or HTS from the safe zones, myriad other hardline Salafist groups merit serious concern. The most prominent is Ahrar al-Sham, a longtime on-and-off partner and opponent of Nusra. If Ahrar al-Sham and other hardline groups are allowed to remain in the safe zones, their fighters could violate ceasefires or use the cover of the safe zone as a backstop to stage attacks against the regime elsewhere—jeopardizing the entire enterprise. If safe zones give these hardline groups and spoilers cover to expand their arsenals, it could result in increased violence when the agreement falls apart.
Third, it is unclear how the guarantors will respond to the inevitable violations. On the opposition side, the closest semblance of an operational safe zone was Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation—a contingent of Turkish troops embedded with FSA-affiliated opposition groups in northern Aleppo countryside. Euphrates Shield was only possible with Russia’s permission, which hinged on Turkey restraining the opposition groups under its umbrella from fighting with Assad. Even with its own troops embedded, Turkey struggled and failed to do so. If Turkey could not control ostensibly more moderate rebels in northern Aleppo, one cannot reasonably expect Turkish operations in Idlib or elsewhere will be more successful.
Likewise, on the regime side, it will be extremely difficult for Russia or Iran to restrain Assad’s army and the pro-government militias. If Assad’s forces were to launch attacks that violated an agreed ceasefire, how would his backers respond? Russia and Iran have few, if any, real options to punish him. Assad, despite being the weaker actor, has leverage over his sponsors. He knows that Russia and Iran, deeply invested in Syria, will not undermine his regime and risk the country disintegrating over simple ceasefire violation.
It's a start
Russia’s plan to de-escalate violence in Syria is an important watershed in the intra-Syrian negotiations. It could serve as the first step toward decentralization, which is a far better option than a total victory by Assad or a scenario in which Assad is violently ousted and the country fragments far worse than its current state of chaos.
That said, this plan is hardly suitable for implementation. The opposition, still fixated on Assad’s removal, will support no agreement that keeps him in power, and Assad has not yet abandoned his mission to reclaim “every inch of Syria.” Both sides must concede their maximalist positions if there is to be a resolution to the conflict. Furthermore, rigid safe zones guaranteed by the opposition’s backers—especially if they put troops on the ground—would further complicate the messy conflict.
Though this plan will likely fail, its premise—that Assad will not retake the country by force, and the opposition must begrudgingly accept that Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable future—can be the basis for the diplomatic solution Syria desperately needs. The international backers of both the regime and the opposition must embody this if they hope to resolve the conflict.